The India Cable: Narwal, Kalita, Tanha Out of UAPA Chokehold; PM Has Irony Deficiency

Plus: Asian nuclear powers expanding arsenals, Modi sarkar bids reluctant farewell to Bibi sarkar, retail inflation at six-month high, Delta+ variant makes its debut, Anand defeated by stealth

A newsletter from The Wire & Galileo Ideas | Contributors: MK Venu, Seema Chishti, Siddharth Varadarajan, Sidharth Bhatia, Sushant Singh and Tanweer Alam | Editor: Pratik Kanjilal

Snapshot of the day
June 15, 2021

Pratik Kanjilal

The Delhi High Court has granted bail to Natasha Narwal, Devangana Kalita and Asif Iqbal Tanha in the northeast Delhi “conspiracy case”. The three students have been in custody since May 2020, accused under the draconian Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) of conspiring to cause law and order problems of massive scale in the capital, during the agitation against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act. Crucially, the court has found: “…prima facie, no offence under Sections 15, 17 or 18 UAPA is made out on the basis of the material on record…” The court has also spoken of the Indian State’s “anxiety to suppress dissent”. 

Following an international arbitration award, the Supreme Court has quashed all proceedings against Italian marines Massimiliano Latorre and Salvatore Girone, who were charged with killing two Kerala fishermen in 2012. Blood money has been secured, not democratic justice. Modi, in March, 2014, had raised serious objections to any efforts to resolve this. Cosa è successo?

The Covid vaccine from US-based Novavax has shown efficacy of over 90% in preventing infection and 100% efficacy against moderate to severe disease, the company claimed on Monday while announcing results from its Phase 3 clinical trials. The side effects are relatively mild. The Serum Institute of India is a manufacturing partner for the vaccine and the authorities have earlier indicated that 20 crore doses may be available in the country in August-December. Meanwhile, in Uttarakhand, it appears that at least 1 lakh of the 4 lakh Covid tests done at the Kumbh Mela were fake. Hundreds from the same address, with the same phone number, were tested with the same kit.

The Union government has told the Bombay High Court that its national guidelines do not at present allow a door-to-door drive to vaccinate people against Covid-19. Although some state governments and municipal bodies had decided to ignore its advisory guidelines and are conducting door-to-door vaccination for special categories of citizens, Additional Solicitor General Anil Singh said it was not possible yet to make such drives a part of the national policy. He went on to say that since the Union government’s policy was merely advisory, it had not required Kerala, Odisha and Jharkhand, which are conducting such drives, to roll them back.

China is undertaking significant modernisation and expansion of its nuclear weapons inventory, and India and Pakistan also appear to be expanding their nuclear arsenals, according to the Yearbook 2021 of the Swedish think tank Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), which was released yesterday.

Ab ki baar, No Bibi Sarkar in Israel, but in an unusual move, Narendra Modi congratulated  Benjamin Netanyahu, who lost his chair by a solitary vote, besides new Prime Minister Naftali Bennett. Bibi was the first to congratulate Modi in 2019 and the ideological affinity between the two is no secret. First, Trump lost, now Bibi. But perhaps Modi hopes Bibi might be back. 

A joint venture between tech billionaire NR Narayana Murthy – father-in-law of UK Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak – and Amazon is in a major dispute with the Indian tax authorities, a Guardian investigation has found. The disclosure adds to the list of legal battles currently involving the joint venture, following news on Friday that the Competition Commission of India has been given permission to relaunch an investigation into Amazon.

Even 36 hours after Zionghaka aka Zion-a, the patriarch of what is believed to be the world's largest family, breathed his last in Mizoram, his loved ones were not ready to bid him goodbye. The family believes that he is “still very much alive”.


Illegal action on the high seas?

A UK-based law firm dealing with the case of fugitive diamond trader Mehul Choksi yesterday released images and videos purportedly showing individuals, including Indian-origin men, in an operation to take Choksi from Antigua to Dominica on May 23. Justice Abroad, the law firm, has claimed that Choksi was kidnapped with the help of a female acquaintance and men who gagged and tied him to a wheelchair and used an unmarked boat to transport him from Antigua to Dominica. Choksi’s criminal complaint alleges the men are linked to Gurdip ‘Dev’ Bath, a London-based businessman who has flaunted his association with Prime Minister Narendra Modi.


Retail inflation at six-month high

Measured by the Consumer Price Index (CPI), retail inflation accelerated to a six-month high of 6.3% in May, breaching the upper band of the Reserve Bank of India’s flexible inflation target. As per data from the National Statistical Office, food inflation shot up to 5% in May from 2% in April as prices of meat, fish, eggs, oils and fats surged. Fuel bills zoomed 11.6% as the government raised retail prices of petrol and diesel. Services inflation also rose significantly as costs of health, transport and personal care increased during the second wave of the pandemic. Wholesale price inflation galloped to 12.94% in May after breaching double digits in April with inflation in fuel and power spiking to 37.61% in May, against 20.94 per cent in April, as global commodity prices hardened.


And now, the highly transmissible Delta Plus 

The highly transmissible Delta variant of SARS-CoV-2 has mutated further to form the ‘Delta Plus’ or ‘AY.1’ variant but there is no immediate cause for concern in India, where its incidence is still low. The new Delta plus variant is a mutation of the Delta or B.1.617.2 variant, first identified in India and one of the drivers of the deadly second wave here. 

Though there is no indication yet of the severity of the disease due to the new variant, Delta Plus is resistant to the monoclonal antibody cocktail treatment for Covid-19 recently authorised in India. Scientist and doctor Siddhartha Mukherjee has spoken of the Delta variant as “the next emerging threat”, needing an international sub-group to study its effects. India has been woefully and dangerously slow in genome sampling for this variant, a cause of global concern.

According to Public Health England, 63 genomes of Delta (B.1.617.2) with the new K417N mutation have been identified so far by the global science initiative GISAID. In its latest report on coronavirus variants, the health agency said Delta plus was present in six genomes from India as of June 7. 


Elderly abused during lockdown

At least 73% of the elderly population said that they have experienced abuse during the lockdown imposed to curb the spread of Covid-19 this year, according to the Agewell Foundation. Their report, which took responses from 5,000 elderly, also highlighted that 82% of those respondents said that their lives have been adversely affected by the Covid-19 situation. The respondents said that cases of abuse increased during and after the lockdown. Among them, 61% claimed interpersonal relationships to be the main factor for increased incidences of elder abuse in households. 

The survey also showed that 65% of these elderly people were facing neglect in their life while at least 58% of them said that they were suffering abuse in their families and in society. The report also highlighted that every third elderly person (35.1%) claimed that people face incidents of domestic violence in their old age.


The Long Cable

PM diagnosed with galloping irony deficiency at G7

Sidharth Bhatia

In April this year, a US government organisation cited India as a “country of particular concern” when it came to religious freedoms. It was listed along with North Korea, China and Myanmar. It specifically pointed out the “nationalist policies” of the BJP that resulted in systematic violations of the freedom of religion. In recent years, journalists and comedians have been thrown in jail for their criticism, social media has been pressured to remove tweets and even freeze accounts, and human rights researchers and activists have been held in prison for years. Protesting students are charged with ‘sedition’ and in Lakshadweep, the latest target of the powers that be ―  who want to convert it into a holiday resort ― is a filmmaker charged with sedition for protesting.

So when Prime Minister Narendra Modi declares that India, like the rest of the G7 countries, stands for freedom of thought and liberty, one can only ask: is it a delusion, willful ignorance or just a bad case of irony deficiency. Either Modi and his speechwriters live in a world of their own, where journalists, activists and comedians can be as critical of the government as they want to, or they have just got into denial mode. Either way, it smacks of rank hypocrisy and his global peers must wonder at the straight face he keeps while uttering his pieties.

Surely they cannot be unaware of the frequent Internet shutdowns in India. Access Now, a digital rights group, recorded that the Indian government had asked for 109 of the 155 internet blockages in 2020; Yemen followed with six. Media freedom organisations have downgraded India, which is now at 142 among 180 countries.

Indians don’t need these scorecards to confirm what they know. The chilling effects of curbs on free expression are already being felt. A set of rules, introduced recently and suddenly, makes it compulsory for retired intelligence and security officials to submit their writings to the head of their former organisation for clearance before publishing. In effect, it’s pre-censorship. This has deterred some retired bureaucrats babus from continuing to write in the media. The ardour of comedians to be sharply critical of the government has been dampened. Student activists may be warned by their elders not to confront the government.

Previous governments too were not exactly open-minded about criticism, but the chances of being held for sedition for criticising Manmohan Singh were extremely slim. In the India of today, however, such criticism is risky business. In Uttar Pradesh, being a critic of Adityanath and his government can be truly dangerous, especially if you are Muslim.

The world has woken up to India’s egregious record on the freedom of expression, especially that of religious minorities. It can do little more than wring its hands and apply diplomatic pressure behind the scenes. As has been seen, governments hide behind the ‘don’t meddle in our internal affairs’ fig leaf and India has fended off criticism with rebuttals which call it ‘misleading’.

Yet, the stark reality is apparent and every time a Muslim is attacked, a journalist arrested for writing a story or an activist picked up for protesting, it is one more confirmation of the fact that India is no longer a country where speaking one’s mind freely is encouraged, or even allowed.

Since the prime minister has expressed his commitment to democratic freedoms, he should now be held to it. At the same time, a hint of what the Indian government actually thinks was apparent in the fight it put up at the G7 outreach forum against a broader condemnation of Internet shutdowns. The fact that his government wants to retain the ability to clamp down on the Internet makes a mockery of Narendra Modi’s claims. Those expecting him to suddenly turn into a defender of free expression should curb their enthusiasm.


Reportedly

When Ram Vilas Paswan’s younger brother Pashupati Kumar Paras led a Sunday coup and split the Lok Janshakti Party with five of the six Lok Sabha MPs swearing allegiance to him, he was just playing by the script written and directed by the ruling JD(U) in Bihar. The JD(U) has, however, vehemently denied its role in the LJP split. “As you sow, so you reap,” remarked JD(U) president and key Nitish aide RCP Singh. But those who know Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar well say that he neither forgets nor forgives easily. LJP president Chirag Paswan, a generation younger than Nitish, had threatened to put him behind bars after the Bihar Assembly polls, but having failed to keep the JD(U) out of power, the over-ambitious Paswan scion has lost this round to the wily Nitish. 

The grapevine is now abuzz with the theory that the five LJP MPs, who have submitted a petition to Lok Sabha Speaker Om Birla informing him about Paras being elected LJP president as well as the leader of the Parliamentary party, may eventually join the JD(U) and further strengthen Nitish, who already has 16 Lok Sabha MPs from Bihar. The JD(U) will then numerically have more MPs from this state than the BJP (which has 17 Lok Sabha MPs from Bihar) giving Nitish much-needed ammunition to drive a hard bargain with the BJP, and possibly seek representation in the Union Cabinet, too. 


Two lakh Class 10 students dropped out in Maharashtra

More than 2 lakh students in Maharashtra dropped out of the education system over the past year, as the pandemic raged. A total of 18,31,344 students passed the ninth standard last year. However, the number of applicants for the tenth standard this year were just 16,57,000. Out of these, 56,000 students were re-appearing for exams. That means only 16 lakh fresh students appeared for their tenth standard exams. When compared to those who passed class 9 last year, about 2,32,000 students have dropped out from the education system in a single year.


Prime Number: 1,163
The number of persons whose death was related to Covid-19, whose claims were honoured by the Pradhan Mantri Jeevan Jyoti Beema Yojana till March 30, as per an RTI query by NewsClick. A total of Rs 23.26 crore was paid in these claims. The number of claims is minuscule compared with the number of deceased persons covered by the policy.

Muslim man abducted and assaulted in UP

In a viral video on social media, an elderly Muslim man has accused four unidentified people of beating him up, shaving his beard and forcing him to chant Jai Shri Ram after abducting him to a secluded house in Ghaziabad. The Ghaziabad Police, however, said it had already registered an FIR on the alleged incident, which took place on June 5 but was reported to the police two days later, on June 7. 

However, in his complaint, Abdul Samad, a native of Bulandshahr in UP, had not made the allegations in the video, said Ghaziabad SSP Amit Pathak. He also said that the police have already arrested one Parvesh Gujjar, who had bought an amulet, or tabeez, from Samad, which didn’t ‘work’. Among those arrested along with Parvesh are two Muslim men, the police said. Why they were party to communal taunts is not known, assuming Samad’s account is accurate.


Deep Dive

Gen Z, aged 18-25, is struggling hardest to cope with work from home. Nearly 71% of Gen Z respondents in a Microsoft survey said they are merely surviving or “flat-out struggling.”


Ex-RBI Gov: Uneven recovery ‘morally wrong, politically corrosive’

Former RBI Governor D Subbarao has expressed concern over “extreme unevenness” in economic recovery and “sharpening inequalities” between upper income segments and lower income households in the country, cautioning that the trend will hit growth prospects going forward. In strong comments, Subbarao termed the uneven recovery “morally wrong and politically corrosive”. He said that domestic liquidity and foreign fund inflows are pushing up  stocks and other assets, despite disruptions due to Covid-19.


26 months for Amazon insider trading

The Indian-origin husband of a former Amazon employee has been sentenced to 26 months in prison by a US court for securities fraud and illegally making a profit of $1.4 million by using insider trading information gained from his wife. Viky Bohra, 37, from Bothell, Washington state, pleaded guilty in November 2020, admitting that between 2016 and 2018, he used Amazon inside information he obtained from his wife, an Amazon finance employee, to trade in Amazon stock. As part of the plea agreement, Bohra’s wife, who is no longer employed at Amazon, will not face criminal charges.


Op-Eds you don’t want to miss

  • Exactly one year after 20 Indian soldiers were killed in Galwan in a border skirmish with China, Sushant Singh (a contributor to The India Cable) writes that China is now in a different league, competing with the US, and New Delhi faces the task of “living with an uneasy calm”.

  • Archis Mohan writes that the Aam Aadmi Party believes the doorstep delivery of subsidised ration is one issue that might strike a chord with the urban poor in Delhi and states like Gujarat and Punjab. It is unlikely to let go of it anytime soon.

  • The high excise duty on petroleum products is likely to stay through 2021-22, given that low collections of corporate tax will continue and the government needs to compensate for it. This will add to inflation, writes Vivek Kaul.

  • Shoaib Daniyal writes that like Modi’s BJP now, the Congress rode the wave of Indira Gandhi’s popularity even as she simultaneously undercut her party’s own roots in the states in order to build up a powerful high command. Eventually, this weakened the party. Is the BJP going down the same path?


Listen Up

Chef Nik Sharma breaks down the science of taste, talks about the joy of cooking, and discusses his latest book, The Flavor Equation, with host Sandip Roy.


Watch Out

Actor Neena Gupta, a trailblazer of her generation in so many ways, has written her memoirs, Sach Bolun Toh. Kareena Kapoor is in a conversation with her.

A post shared by @neena_gupta

Over and Out

Grandmaster Vishwanathan Anand played chess with multiple celebrities as part of a Covid-19 virtual fundraiser on Sunday. Nikhil Kamath, co-founder of financial firm Zerodha, was the only opponent who defeated Anand but later said he “had help” from computers and analysts. His actions have come under criticism from fans and followers of the grandmaster, as he disclosed this only after Chess.com banned him for cheating to win. Anand himself said that chess is also about ethics

Actor Vidya Balan says she is scared of creepy-crawlies, but that didn’t prevent her from playing a forest officer in Sherni, which is Newton director Amit Masurkar’s new film and places Balan’s character at the centre of human-animal conflict.


That’s it for today. We’ll be back with you tomorrow, on a device near you. If The India Cable was forwarded to you by a friend (perhaps a common friend!) book your own copy by SUBSCRIBING HERE.